If the CTools video featuring University Provost Teresa Sullivan, the barrage of e-mails from the Office of Financial Aid and the exorbitant bills students pay each semester have yet to sink in: tuition is absurdly expensive. And across the state, students who can’t afford to pay up have no choice but to forgo a college education. But the new Michigan Promise Zone Act that was recently signed into law could ease the burden of higher education costs to these students. For the act to be effective, though, private donors must invest in the state’s future by helping to pay for these students to go to college.

On Jan. 13, Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed the Michigan Promise Zone Act, which will create zones in which scholarships are provided for students in low-income areas. The promise zones are based upon the highly successful Kalamazoo Promise program, which fully covers tuition to graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools who go on to attend in-state public universities. Since the Kalamazoo Promise began two years ago, the city has seen higher graduation rates and an increase in enrollment. Enrollment and retention rates for Michigan State University and the University of Michigan have also improved.

The success of the Kalamazoo effort is encouraging and is more than enough evidence to justify the state’s expansion of the program. Right now, there are 125 communities in Michigan with poverty levels that qualify them to become promise zones. Promise zone status will be granted on a first-come, first-serve basis for communities that prove they have enough private funds to provide scholarships for two years. After that, the state will match the funding. Both Muskegon and Pontiac are already working to raise the money.

The winners here, of course, are the students who get the chance to go to college. The communities eligible to become promise zones are full of students whose only obstacle to a college education is the bill. Promise zones will make this sad reality a thing of the past for many Michigan residents.

And while students will get free college out of the deal, the state will see its fair share of benefits, too. The Michigan Promise Zone Act will boost the enrollment at in-state public universities, which will affect college rankings and likely keep more college graduates working in Michigan. Higher enrollment and graduation rates will lead to economic stability. Churning out more college-educated workers is the only way to shift the state’s economy away from manufacturing.

But if Michigan residents want to help the state, they must do their part to help make the promise zones a reality. Private investors should be motivated to donate to these scholarships until the state matches the funding, since the fates of private businesses are tied to the fate of Michigan’s economy. When private businesses and donors invest in programs that help Michigan diversify its economy, they are helping themselves in the long run. A better-educated workforce means more successful businesses.

And though the zones come too late to help students already enrolled at universities, this law might even make it so that Sullivan doesn’t have to appear on CTools anymore.

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